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Thursday, July 04, 2013

Archaeology news 3: Samson mosaics found in Galilee

From Israel Antiquities Authority:
A monumental synagogue building dating to the Late Roman period (ca. 4th-5th centuries C.E.) has been discovered in archaeological excavations at Huqoq in Israel’s Galilee.

The excavations are being conducted by Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and David Amit and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority, under the sponsorship of UNC, Brigham Young University in Utah, Trinity University in Texas, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Toronto in Canada. Students and staff from UNC and the consortium schools are participating in the dig.

Huqoq is an ancient Jewish village located approximately two to three miles west of Capernaum and Migdal (Magdala). Thissecond season of excavations has revealed portions of a stunning mosaic floor decorating the interior of the synagogue building. The mosaic, which is made of tiny colored stone cubes of the highest quality, includes a scene depicting Samson placing torches between the tails of foxes (as related in the book of Judges 15). In another part of the mosaic, two human (apparently female) faces flank a circular medallion with a Hebrew inscription that refersto rewards for those who performgood deeds.

“This discovery is significant because only a small number of ancient (Late Roman) synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, and only two others have scenes with Samson (one is at another site just a couple of miles from Huqoq),” said Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the department of religious studies in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Our mosaics are also important because of their high artistic quality and the tiny size of the mosaic cubes. This, together with the monumental size of the stones used to construct the synagogue’s walls, suggest a high level of prosperity in this village, as the building clearly was very costly.”
The University of North Carolina describes a different Samson mosaic; I'm not sure if it is from the same site or the one nearby:
Very high resolution image; click to see detail
In summer 2012, a mosaic showing Samson and the foxes (as related in the Bible’s Judges 15:4) was discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle. This summer, another mosaic was found that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3). Adjacent to Samson are riders with horses, apparently representing Philistines. Although he is not described as such in the Hebrew Bible, Samson is depicted as a giant in both scenes, reflecting later Jewish traditions that developed about the biblical judge and hero.

Biblical scenes are not uncommon in Late Roman synagogue mosaics, but only one other ancient synagogue in Israel (at Khirbet Wadi Hamam) is decorated with a scene showing Samson.

“The discovery of two Samson scenes in the Huqoq synagogue suggests that it was decorated with a Samson cycle — the first such cycle known in Israel,” said Magness. “A cycle is a series of scenes about Samson, in which different episodes relating to Samson are depicted.”

Another portion of mosaic discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle preserves a scene that includes several male figures and an elephant. Below that is an arcade, with the arches framing young men arranged around a seated elderly man holding a scroll. The strip below shows a bull pierced by spears, with blood gushing from his wounds, and a dying or dead soldier holding a shield.

This mosaic differs in style, quality and content from the Samson scenes, Magness said.

“It might depict a triumphal parade or perhaps a martyrdom story based on Maccabees 1-4, in which case it would be the first example of an apocryphal story decorating an ancient synagogue,” she said. “Apocryphal books were not included in the Hebrew Bible/Jewish canon of sacred scripture.”

(h/t L. King)